In political shift to the far right, anti-Islam populist Geert Wilders wins big in Dutch elections

In political shift to the far right, anti-Islam populist Geert Wilders wins big in Dutch elections

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP): The party of anti-Islam populist Geert Wilders won a huge general election victory in the Netherlands, according to a nearly complete vote count early Thursday, that showed a stunning lurch to the far right for a nation once famed as a beacon of tolerance.

The result will send shock waves through Europe, where far-right ideology is on the rise, and puts Wilders in line to lead talks to form the next governing coalition and possibly become the first far-right prime minister of the Netherlands.

With nearly all votes counted, Wilders’ Party for Freedom was forecast to win 37 seats in the 150-seat lower house of parliament, two more than predicted by an exit poll when voting finished Wednesday night and more than double the 17 the party secured in the last election.

Wilders got a standing ovation when he met his lawmakers at the parliament building Thursday morning.

“Can you imagine it? 37 seats!” he said to cheers.

Other political parties were holding separate meetings to discuss the election’s outcome before what is likely to be an arduous process of forming a new governing coalition begins Friday.

Wilders’ election program included calls for a referendum on the Netherlands leaving the European Union, a total halt to accepting asylum-seekers and migrant pushbacks at Dutch borders.

It also advocates the “de-Islamization” of the Netherlands. He says he wants no mosques or Islamic schools in the country, although he has been milder about Islam during this election campaign than in the past.

Although known for his harsh rhetoric, Wilders began courting other right-wing and centrist parties by saying in a victory speech that whatever policies he pushes will be “within the law and constitution.”

His victory appeared based on his campaign to curtail migration -— the issue that caused the last governing coalition to quit in July — — and to tackle issues such as the Netherlands’ cost-of-living crisis and housing shortages.

“I think, to be honest, very many people are very focused on one particular problem, which is immigration,” voter Norbert van Beelen said in The Hague on Thursday morning. “So I think that’s what people voted for, immigration and all the other aspects of leaving the European Union looking very inward as opposed to outward are just forgotten. It’s all about immigration.”

In his victory speech, Wilders said he wants to end what he called the “asylum tsunami,” referring to the migration issue that came to dominate his campaign.

“The Dutch will be No. 1 again,” Wilders said. “The people must get their nation back.”

Wilders, long a firebrand who lashed out at Islam, the EU and migrants, was in the past labeled a Dutch version of Donald Trump. His positions brought him close to power but never in it.

But to become prime minister of a country known for compromise politics, he must persuade other party leaders to work with him in a coalition government.

That will be tough as mainstream parties are reluctant to join forces with him and his party, but the size of his victory strengthens his hand in any negotiations.

Wilders called on other parties to constructively engage in coalition talks. Pieter Omtzigt, a former centrist Christian Democrat who built his own New Social Contract party in three months to take 20 seats, said he would always be open to talks.

The closest party to Wilders’ in the election was an alliance of the center-left Labour Party and Green Left, which was forecast to win 25 seats. But its leader, Frans Timmermans, made clear that Wilders should not count on him as a partner.

“We will never form a coalition with parties that pretend that asylum-seekers are the source of all misery,” Timmermans said, vowing to defend Dutch democracy.

The historic victory came one year after the win of Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni, whose Brothers of Italy’s roots were steeped in nostalgia for fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. Meloni has since mellowed her stance on several issues and has become the acceptable face of the hard right in the EU.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who boasts of turning Hungary into an “illiberal” state and has similarly harsh stances on migration and EU institutions, was quick to congratulate Wilders. “The winds of change are here! Congratulations,” Orban said.

During the final weeks of his campaign, Wilders somewhat softened his stance and vowed that he would be a prime minister for all Dutch people, so much so that he gained the moniker Geert “Milders.”

The election was called after the fourth and final coalition of outgoing Prime Minister Mark Rutte resigned in July after failing to agree to measures to rein-in migration.

Rutte was replaced as the head of his People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy by Dilan Yesilgöz-Zegerius, a former refugee from Turkiye who could have become the country’s first female prime minister had her party won the most votes. Instead, it was forecast to lose 10 seats to end up with 24.

The result is the latest in a series of elections that is altering the European political landscape. From Slovakia and Spain, to Germany and Poland, populist and hard-right parties triumphed in some EU member nations and faltered in others.

In The Hague on Thursday, Dutch voter Barbara Belder said that Wilders’ victory “is a very clear sign that the Netherlands wants something different.”